PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — After getting a firsthand look at Ukraine’s border with Poland, Congressman David Cicilline warned Sunday the world is facing a humanitarian crisis of “enormous magnitude” that will require sustained assistance from the United States and its allies.
The Rhode Island Democrat arrived in Eastern Europe on Saturday morning, his second trip to the region since January, for a two-day visit along with other lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. They have been touring the area near the border and meeting with officials as Congress debates what to do next amid Russia’s assault.
In an interview with 12 News just after 10 p.m. local time, with the temperature at roughly 15 degrees, Cicilline said it was “really hard to describe” what he had witnessed when the delegation on Sunday morning went to one of the four border entry points from Ukraine into Poland.
“People are literally running for their lives,” he said from outside his hotel. “It was just impossible to describe the misery and the fear.”
Cicilline said he saw “droves” of Ukrainians making their way to the border — largely women and young children, hungry and exhausted. Most were carrying just one bag or suitcase, and many were crying after saying goodbye to male loved ones who are required to stay behind and fight.
A steady stream of arrivals continues day and night despite frigid temperatures, he said. Border guards and police give the children teddy bears, while volunteers are cooking food around the clock to feed the new arrivals. After reaching the border, the refugees are transported by bus to a welcome center, where they get either picked up, taken in by a Polish family, or left indefinitely.
“The human suffering that is being caused by this invasion of a sovereign country by Vladimir Putin is just unspeakable, and it really does amount to war crimes,” Cicilline said.
The House delegation met with a group of Ukrainian refugees who “expressed gratitude to the United States for what we’re doing,” Cicilline said. But they also shared fears about the outlook of their country, the people they had left behind, and their own futures.
“There was not a single member of our delegation who by the end of this trip was not in tears at the border,” Cicilline said. “It was really, really hard.”
The United Nations estimates 1.5 million people have fled Ukraine in the 10 days since Russia’s invasion began. Cicilline said his delegation met with the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, who told them “he’s never seen this number in that short a period of time.”
“This is a humanitarian crisis of enormous magnitude,” Cicilline said. “It’s freezing cold. People are coming with virtually nothing.” He praised Polish leaders and citizens for their efforts to help the refugees, and said the U.S. and its allies should step up efforts to assist.
“This is going to continue – sadly – for a while,” he said.
The governor of Lviv, a Ukrainian city near the Polish border, came to see the group of House lawmakers “when he heard we were coming,” Cicilline said, “to thank us for our support and tell us that his countrymen were ready to continue the fight.” He described the meeting as “very emotional.”
The delegation also met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, U.S. Ambassador to Poland Mark Brezinski and other military and governmental officials.
Cicilline said he agreed with other members of Congress who have ruled out establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, despite pleas from the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for NATO to take that step. He said it would be “very dangerous” because it could involve western countries in direct conflict with Russian forces.
However, he said he believed the Ukrainian military can defend its own airspace “if they have the right equipment,” and said Blinken indicated in a meeting with the House delegation that he is in discussions about that. Poland has reportedly offered to send fighter jets to Ukraine if the U.S. in turn provides replacements for Poland.
Cicilline also said he exited his meetings with American, Ukrainian and Polish officials confident that sanctions are working. “They’re crippling the Russian economy,” he said. He expressed support for a ban on U.S. imports of Russian oil, though he acknowledged Americans are already struggling with soaring prices at the gas pump.
“I think most people would say if we have to pay a penny or two more for gas by rejecting Russian oil we should do it, because the Ukrainians need our support,” Cicilline said.
Speaking separately to 12 News, Rhode Island Congressman Jim Langevin said he joined a call on Saturday with Zelenskyy, who shared “a sobering assessment” with lawmakers.
“He’s asking for more to be done and I know that President Biden is trying to leave no stone unturned to find out ways that we can ratchet up the pressure, impose more harsh sanctions with our allies and partners in NATO and Western Europe,” Langevin said.
But Langevin, a senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, reiterated that American military forces won’t engage in direct combat with Russian troops.
“President Biden has made it clear we’re not sending in U.S. forces, because you can see very clearly how quickly this could then potentially escalate to World War III, and none of us want to see that,” he said.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook
Chelsea Jones contributed to this report.